U.K. expat Katy Vernon: 'death, drinking, disability' songs meet the uke

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Katy Vernon, left, and her band have a Present for you.

The combination of getting older and having a day job is an eternal struggle with which most artists deal. On her latest album, Present, Katy Vernon finds solace and contentment in her current life, somewhat appeasing those demons that force you to create while living a "normal" life.

The record is an example of the mystery that is the human mind and a reminder that music is about making people feel they are part of something — a larger tribe. On it, Vernon digs deep into the creative psyche, revealing the complex interchange of ideas between human beings.

City Pages sat down with the U.K. expat and current Minnesotan before her album release on Sunday at Icehouse to find the process behind her latest musical venture.

City Pages: What drew you to the ukulele when you first began performing?

Katy Vernon: I'd been writing and singing for a long time but was in a creative slump. I played guitar a little but I was always primarily a vocalist and the idea of playing solo was completely daunting, so without a band I felt pretty lost. I saw Lucy Michelle play a tenor uke that had a fuller sound and really changed the way I felt about it.

A friend, Dave Kapell, had been telling me for years that it would be a good instrument for me so we went shopping together, and I literally asked the guys at Twin Town for the one Lucy played. I wrote my first song in a couple of weeks and it just felt instinctive to me to play it. It suits my voice well and I like the levity it brings to some of my sadder songs. On Twitter I call myself "singer of sad songs on a happy instrument."

CP: What do you think is a common misconception about the instrument or even people who play the ukulele?

KV: I think most people still think it's pretty twee. Every time I write a song on it I'm trying to make it sound different. It's at versatile as any other instrument. I also put together Uke Fest every year and that embraces the large range of how it can sound.

We had 16 different acts this year and none sounded the same. I think you can embrace people's misconceptions and have fun with it. There's a history to cutesy songs being played on the uke and that's fine but there's so much more it can do.

CP: How did you come to working with your producer Kevin Bowe on this project? How do you think he changed the songs?

KV: I knew Kevin a little and he invited us in to his IPR [Institute of Production & Recording] sessions, which is a chance for bands to track for free and students to learn recording. I don't think he had any idea how ambitious we were going to be when we came in. We had just come off a residency so we were super tight and we did five complete songs during that morning.

One of my favorite musical moments was when we played a song that day and when we were done the entire room of students clapped and said it was a hit! That was an unexpected and sweet moment. We went back and did the rest of the album that way and then spent the next year putting the rest of the tracks together at his home studio. It was amazingly productive.

The songs didn't change during the recording process so much. I think the biggest factor was that we had really learned how to play together and tighten up our arrangements prior to going in. I could have agonized over every choice, and Kevin would get a couple of takes on everything and keep it moving. He told me to put all the stress on him, so I did. He's incredibly encouraging and I felt completely listened to and involved.

One song that Kevin absolutely had a vision for and that we started over after the IPR sessions was "Pearl." We had rushed that one and so when we re-did it he made a couple of keyboard sound suggestions and we added some single uke strums and it took on more of a Roxy Music vibe. I think if we had started at his studio in the beginning rather than going the IPR route, he would have had even more creative input, but I really wanted a band sound and I feel like we got that. He took what we were all already doing and made sure we didn't overthink it.

CP: You mentioned you write a lot about tough situations in your life, such as losing your parents at a young age. How did/does music help you move forward when you're faced with tragedies like this?

KV: It's always been my outlet. I found it hard to talk about a lot and at some point people expect you to just be okay and stop talking about grief, but it's always with you. I found pretty early on that I could put my feelings into song and then luckily people enjoyed them.

It might sound like a break up song or something else that people can relate to and although I know it's cathartic for me it's an even exchange of pretty singing and enjoyment for the listener. So hopefully it doesn't sound totally self indulgent. It's just a huge part of who i am and also a way to keep my parents memory and presence in my life.

I knew after my last record that I didn't want another whole album that focused on that though. I'm trying to grow. The record is called Present because I'm trying to live in the moment more and not look back so much and not stress about the future either. Some of my deepest fears have already come true but I have so much to be grateful for.

CP: How do you self-edit to make it not cheesy and trite?

KV: On paper I might sound cheesy, English girl with a pixie haircut singing songs on a ukulele! But anyone who's ever seen me would know that's not the case. I pour my heart out on stage, and I just try to be really true to how I want to express myself. I definitely self-edit anything cheesy out.

I think that's why I found it so hard to write happier songs. Whenever I write I just want to say something I don't think had been said a million times. Love songs and happy songs are hard without breaking into the cheese. Songs about death, drinking, and disability are more my style.

CP: Tell me about the song "Lily." How did you come to writing that piece? What headspace were you in when you were writing it?

KV: This was my happy song success story! The chorus came to me almost fully formed in the shower, I think a lot in there, and I loved the idea of someone painting the world with happiness. My daughter Lily wakes up every single day with a powerful joyful attitude that is so foreign to me that I just marvel at it! She's also incredibly creative and really great at art. She drew the back cover art for this record.

Once I had the idea for the song I had to do some serious Crayola research to look up all the color names I wanted to name check. I've never done that with a song before so it was a fun project. Of course now there's pressure to write a song about my other kid, Daisy, but she came in to the studio and sang backing vocals so that made her happy.

CP: Any other songs on this album that you're particularly proud of or you embody when you're on stage?

KV: "Pearl" is my favorite song on the record for now. It was such a turning point writing wise. I was really struggling with anxiety and grief and needed help trying to lessen some of the stress in my life. I actually turned to hypnosis therapy for help.

After leaving one session I had a strong sense of releasing some of my issues and sat down and wrote that song. It came flooding out of me all at once and is a really hooky beautiful song that I just love performing with the band.

I'd also say that the song that embodies me most right now is "23." It's about singing for myself and not fitting into the cookie cutter mold of whatever people judge as music industry success. I realized one night on stage that I'm not auditioning for anyone. I've got the gig. I gave it to myself after almost giving up. I don't want to tell my kids they can do anything they want in the world but not tell myself that. It's my own personal anthem!

CP: What are you excited to share at the album release show?

KV: In addition to unveiling all the new songs we will also throw in a few really beautiful covers that people haven't heard us play before. Most importantly the evening will showcase how great the band [Clay Williams on guitar, Simon Husbands on keyboard, vocals, Chris McAtee on drums, Reed Pagel on bass, and Paul Odegaard on trumpet] is.

They have my back In every way and are some of the best players in town. No matter how I feel when I get on stage I know I will always feel better when I'm up there because playing music with them is pure joy.

Katy Vernon album-release show for Present

With: Kevin Bowe

When: Sunday, October 25, 2015; 5 pm

Where: Icehouse

Tickets: $10; more details here


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